The trick to making a great 'mobile first' app

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There are now more than one million apps in the Apple app store but a study by Deloitte's showed that 80 percent of apps get less than 1,000 downloads each. If we assume (very, very conservatively) that those apps cost an average of $10,000 to develop -- that is at least $8 billion being wasted making apps no one uses.

In reality, the cost is often over $100,000, which makes the wastage around $80 billion. That is a lot of marketing and development dollars being spent that could have been better used on something else.

Of course, when an app works -- as WhatsApp has shown with 450 million users across all platforms and a valuation of $18bn -- it really works.

We decided to step back and see what it meant to be truly "mobile first" as that is a buzzphrase that is being bandied about by a lot of companies.

In the early days of the web, publishers essentially took their offline print properties and 'repurposed' them for use on the web. Over time they realized that the web was an intrinsically different medium and they needed to develop content specifically for the internet. Only once publishers came to this realization (and many still have not) did we get many of the highly trafficked content websites we have today -- from Slate to The Huffington Post to the New York Times.

However, most of the companies who are going mobile now are making the same mistake, they are taking their web content and essentially resizing it for a mobile screen, not appreciating that mobile is in many ways a fundamentally different medium from a website which is made to be interacted with on a laptop or desktop.

An analysis of the top five websites in the world (Google, YouTube, Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon) shows something equally interesting. They are all utilities that exist purely because of the internet -- i.e. they are not pre-internet properties that were then repurposed. In fact, of the top 50 websites in the world only three -- Microsoft (41), Apple (48) and CNN (49) -- come from pre-internet brands.

A similar analysis of the top 25 free iPhone apps shows that almost all the paid apps are games, except WhatsApp (6) and that only one, (The Weather Channel (7) ) comes from a pre-internet brand. It also shows that ten of the 25 are brands native to the mobile phone, with no significant web presence before the mobile app launch (Instagram (3), Words with Friends (6), Temple Run (9), Shazam (12), Angry Birds (13), Draw Something (14), Flashlight (15), FruitNinja (18), iHeartRadio (19), Bump (21)).

We took this slew of statistics and came to two conclusions:

  • The best apps are focused on the mobile experience and are not just repurposed websites. Nick Watt, a senior researcher at Reed Business Information, has identified the key mobile attributes as being -- 'communication, spontaneous, geo-sensitive, short periods of use and focused activity'. Shazam, a company I helped launch in the UK, very much played to these strengths. When Shazam first launched in 2000 it was pre-smartphone but focused on four out of the five 'above-mentioned mobile attributes very successfully. When the iPhone came along the Shazam app was refined for the smartphone age and the fifth 'mobile attribute' geo-sensitive was added, keeping it consistently one of the most downloaded apps year after year.
  • The best apps have true utility which gets people engaging with them and using them very often. WhatsApp is the perfect example here -- simple, clear and functional, it does what is needed and only brings in features to enhance the communication experience.

The one thing that most apps aren't doing is really understanding the user. A smartphone is a very personal device. Understanding and anticipating the user's needs are what makes an app great. One of our product managers mentioned that a great app was like the personal assistant who always knew what you wanted. This got me thinking of dining in a restaurant and the different types of dining experience we might have. I broke them down into three experiences:

The Fast Food -- This app makes you do all the work and is ultimately not terribly satisfying. For example apps that force you to hunt around for things that should be intuitive, where you click aimlessly hoping something will happen and then suddenly crash for no reason -- we've all been there.

The Irritating Waiter -- The app that is incredibly intrusive, wanting to access all your Facebook details, your contacts and sending you pointless alerts every day.

The Perfect Waiter -- This is the Holy Grail. The app that works perfectly when you need it, sends you alerts that really matter, is incredibly easy to use and leaves you feeling you've had a great experience.

Ajay Chowdhury is CEO of Seatwave

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